How To Overcome A Language Barrier While Travelling

The one thing that holds most people back when it comes to travel is fear. Distance, culture shock and the unknown are all common worries associated with travel but all of these can be overcome if you can communicate with other people. Language barriers are often cited as one of the things that people are most scared of when it comes to exploring new countries and the fear is understandable. When you don’t know the language, solving even the smallest of problems can be a big challenge. Take note of these tips to ease the struggles of adapting to a language barrier.

Master a few useful words

During my year in China, I made the effort to learn whatever words I could. Needless to say, this was no mean feat. In my opinion, I was just as likely to become fluent in Mandarin as I was to join Mensa. Nonetheless, mastering a handful of key words is an achievable task for us all and one of the Winging the World Travel Commandments! I suggest starting with a few adjectives. They will prove to be endlessly useful as they can be applied to so many different conversations. I would always recommend learning the words for both ‘big’ and ‘small,’ if only to ensure you get the right sized meal at McDonald’s.

Don’t be afraid to practice

In the short term, this piece of advice can be pretty mortifying. However, it is the best method when it comes to making lasting progress. I have found that the vast majority of the time, people are pleased that you are making the effort to learn the native language, no matter how rubbish you might be. Nine times out ten, locals are so happy that you are trying that they will go out of their way to help you. As an English speaker, you are also in possession of a highly sought after language yourself, so it is usually easy to find a buddy to practice with.

Speak with confidence and speed

This one is more appropriate for tonal languages like Chinese or Thai. Everything that I have been told says you should always speak slowly if there is a language barrier. I think this is largely true if you are the one speaking in your native language, however, if you are trying to speak in someone else’s language (especially if it is tonal) it is more important to get the pace up and create the right inflexions with your voice. It seems to be much easier for people to work out what you are saying if it sounds natural and there is some context to it, plus as well you don’t need to worry about perfecting every word using this technique.

Use a translation tool

Twenty years ago, it was a pocket dictionary, ten years ago it was google translate and now it’s some app off iTunes. Whatever you choose, it is a good idea to keep a translation tool close to hand. I learnt this the hard way after visiting the chemist overseas in search of medication to relieve period cramps. Knowing that I was going to struggle to convey this message, I had already translated the word ‘period’ ready to show the pharmacist. Upon pointing proudly at the translation, I was met with a confused look. It turns out my translation of the word period actually didn’t apply to a menstrual period at all but actually a period of time. Clearly, they had no idea what I was on about.

Just wing it!

No matter how good you get at communicating without using the language, there will still be times when you are completely out of your depth. I like to use this as a good excuse (and a firm nudge) to do something a bit out of the ordinary. I once remember visiting a restaurant and still recall my mouth going dry when they told me there was no English menu. As I looked down at the foreign squiggles on the page, I realised I had no idea what food was served there, let alone what I might enjoy. Feeling panicked, I closed my eyes and pointed to a line of script. ‘I want this please’. What was served to me was not quite the culinary delight that I had hoped but potentially one of the worst meals that I had ever eaten. A move that didn’t pay off but an adventurous gamble for me all the same.

Use actions

Everyone understands the thumbs up. Language barrier, what language barrier?!Travelling through another country can feel a bit like a never-ending game of charades but trust me when I say it’s worth sacrificing a bit of dignity to minimise day to day stress. You’ll probably start with just pointing but as time goes on you can expand your tactics. All of these hand gestures seem to be generally universal so make an effort to remember them.

  • Thumbs up – Translates to ‘It’s all good.’

*Disclaimer* Avoid this in Australia, Greece and the Middle East as it essentially means ‘up yours!’

  • Clicking an imaginary camera – Translates to ‘Can you take a photo of me?’
  • Two hands together next to your face – Translates to ‘I’m tired’ and also ‘where can I find somewhere to sleep?’
  • One hand flat with the other miming writing – Translates to ‘Can I get the bill?’ (Tim swears by this and I think we’re yet to find a restaurant it hasn’t worked in.)
  • Rubbing together your thumb and two forefingers – Translates to ‘Let’s talk money, how much?’

Bear in mind that you can’t sign everything and not all messages are as clear to convey as the above. I once tried acting out the phrase ‘Where is the toilet?’ Let’s just say it resulted in a whole lot of laughing from the person I asked and a whole lot of embarrassment for me.

Remember your body language and smile!

This tip is paramount. More than anything, it is your body language that helps you communicate. When Tim’s French grandfather met his English grandmother, they went on their very first date without being able to speak a word to each other. Despite this minor complication, they have built a life together ever since. I think that is a lesson in overcoming language barriers for us all.

What are your top tips for surviving a language barrier abroad? 

How to overcome a language barrier.

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14 thoughts on “How To Overcome A Language Barrier While Travelling”

  1. My brain is so useless that even when I do make an effort to learn a few key phrases and words in that foreign language, my mind goes totally blank when I need to use them and I revert to Italian or Maltese for some reason. Now, I know pretty much zero Italian so I can’t explain why I do that. But Maltese I’m much better at. But of course that doesn’t help AT ALL. Awesome tips though! I’m a fan of sign language when it’s absolutely necessary.

    • Haha I know what you mean! You spend the whole day memorising one phrase and when the time comes to use it, it’s like your brain just melts and you can’t remember how to speak at all. Glad I’m not the only one who that happens to! Sign language is a great tool but can definitely be pretty embarrassing when it goes wrong!

  2. Great list! I seem to have success with remembering that there’s a relatively small circle of vocabulary for certain situations. So if I go to a restaurant and someone asks me a question, I try to look at it in context and figure it out from there.

    • That is a really good tip. Context is a biggie for when it comes to understanding I think. I tend to be pretty good with food vocabulary but sadly not much else! :’D

  3. Yes, once you get going in another country, just try to pick up a couple key phrases. I always carry a little note book and pen in my pocket. It can be one of the best things I travel with. I write down little phrases or someone can write something down for me. It has helped to aid many wonderful travel memories! : )

    • I love translation tools, it’s even better because so many of them are so portable now! Language barriers can be daunting but with a bit of perseverance and pre-planning it is easy enough to master a few key phrases and get by.

  4. Hi Sheree, what a brilliant and helpful post. Definitely helped me with achieving mastery of the French language. I guess it didn’t hurt that I took the language in high school and college 🙂

    • Thanks Cherie, I’m glad you found it useful! Yeah I agree, having studied a language previously is super helpful. I did Spanish in school and I’m still amazed by how much I remember!

  5. When I head abroad, I try to bring a little cheat sheet of common phrases with me so that I can attempt to communicate. Mind you, when the writing characters are different (Asian languages, greek etc.) it can be more difficult. I think a translation tool could work. Thanks for coming to Fly Away Friday 🙂 See you this week!

  6. These are such great tips! I was a Forensic Linguistics major so I can appreciate the importance of learning a language! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday, hope to see you again tomorrow! XO


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